In 2003, two young Chinese filmmakers traveled nearly three miles above sea level to the bleak, wind-scoured high desert plains of Kekexili in Tibet, one of the most isolated and inhospitable places on earth. There, battling the headaches, nausea, and dehydration of extreme altitude sickness and the frigid cold, director Lu Chuan, cinematographer Cao Yu, and a mixed professional-amateur cast forged an elegiac environmental thriller as pitiless as the landscape it inhabits.
Mountain Patrol: Kekexili charts one local moment in the global clash between capitalism and conservation. In the 1990s, a tiny group of Tibetan activists struggle to stop the poaching of the Tibetan antelope (chiru), whose high-priced wool is used for luxurious shahtoosh shawls, prized by Asian brides and Western couture divas alike, and costing between $2000-$8000. Based on the real-life Wild Yak Brigade, the former soldier Ri Tai (Duo Bujie) and his part-time vigilantes quarter thousands of square kilometers of mountain and desert in search of poachers they have no authority to arrest. The movie focuses this Sisyphean task through the eyes of a young, half-Tibetan Beijing journalist, Ga Yu (Zhang Lei), who turns up at their village looking for a story.
This is no urbane Western saga of protest, skullduggery, and corruption, a Greenpeace-style direct action, or a sentimentalized lost cause. This is deadly combat. For the poachers, predominantly Chinese, the Tibetan antelope promises riches attainable no other way: for Ri Tai and his men, conservation and nationalism coalesce in the chiru, a symbol of Tibetan independence amidst the encroaching homogenization of the Chinese state. Conservationists and poachers alike carry AK-47s and barrel battered jeeps across a landscape so barren that a minor breakdown or careless step equals death.
Mountain Patrol: Kekexili
Duo Bujie, Zhang Lei, Qi Liang, Xueying Zhao
(National Geographic World Films)
US theatrical: 14 Apr 2006 (Limited release)
From its first moments, the film juxtaposes image and sound in lieu of explanation. Hundreds of antelope appear, but only as fresh corpses or skinned carcasses, fodder for vultures and the eroding wind and sand. Cao Yu’s cinematography pits the humans, and their rackety, unreliable machines, against mountains and horizons bone-chilling in their scale and implacability.
Yet Lu Chuan and Cao Yu’s fidelity to location and way of life also trace broad themes, recalling Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala (1975) and Neils Gaup’s Pathfinder (1987). When the patrollers rip off their trousers to rush through a river flowing equal parts of water and slush to chase poachers, the shock of the cold water is vividly apparent. When Ri Tai’s party divides, then divides again, high in the mountains in the first blizzards of the fall, death seems as close as any human companion. The filming of such scenes landed both director and actors in hospital, frozen and altitude-sick.
The scenes themselves have pushed several American reviewers to compare Kekexili to U.S. westerns. Manohla Dargis, in the New York Times, for example, mentions both John Ford and Sergio Leone. However, Lu Chuan’s film recalls more the nihilistic elegies, such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, in which a passionate loyalty to one’s friends, dead or alive, merges with a single shared quest to drive the protagonist, and those who love him, toward a potentially fatal confrontation. The dominant image of the frontier under threat in each movie tightens the parallels between the two.
Ri Tai calls the plateau and its mountains Tibet’s “last frontier,” something he wishes to preserve as a marker of both personal identity and nationality. The fate of the protagonist and the frontier become entwined. His organization of the patrolling group attracts attention in China, as evidenced by Ga Yu’s arrival. He may thus save one aspect of that frontier, its wildlife, only at the expense of the vestiges of Tibetan autonomy the chiru and its habitat symbolize, a threat paralleled in his own increasing isolation symbolizes as the patrol draws to its end.
Mountain Patrol: Kekexili testifies to the ubiquity of the frontier as an image of nationalist nostalgia, a space shaped by and shaping national identity as it is threatened and vanishing. In Tibet, the events on which the movie is based aroused enough Chinese indignation to both achieve Ri Tai’s goal and realise his nightmare: the Chinese government moved further into the Tibetan frontier, as the administrator of the 45,000 square kilometer Kekexili nature reserve.